Tuesday, June 5, 2018

I Fidanzati (1963)

I Fidanzati (aka The Fiances)(Ermanno Olmi, 1963)
Ermanno Olmi made magical films even if their subject was never magical (territory where Fellini was wont to wander). Olmi took ordinary subjects and the day-to-day and infused them with such loving, telling detail that, even with few words, they communicated a commonality with humanity, whatever country the audience hailed from. Olmi's films are not ambitious in scope, but I find them to be complex in the telling detail and extraordinarily relatable, drawing in their audience with simple stories, a master's eye for composition, and a curiosity about life, people, and the rituals that bind them. 

I Fidanzati begins with just such a ritual. In Milan, several people begin to enter a small hall, wordlessly finding chairs by the walls and sitting, waiting. What they're waiting for are the musicians—a piano player and an accompanying accordionist prepare their instruments and get ready, fussily. Once they have their benches just so and tentative notes played, they begin to play without any introduction or preamble and the towns-folk stand up from their perches, choose their partners and, after their own habitual fashion, begin to dance around the perimeter of the small hall. 

In walks Lillianna (Anna Canzi) and Giovanni (Carlo Cabrini). They wordlessly sit at (one might imagine) their familiar table and watch the couples shuffle around, pirouetting. Lillianna seems moody, serious, and steadfastly watches the dancers as they parade. Giovanni, however, is not very interested in the dancers. He keeps glancing over at Lillianna, his jaw slightly clenched, until ultimately, he decides to get up, stand before her and offer his hand.

"Well?" he says.
She looks at him but doesn't even raise her head, but, more importantly, she doesn't even take his hand. He gives her a few seconds, sees that she is not going to dance with him, and, irritated, goes off to dance with another woman. Another male sees an opportunity while Giovanni dances and goes to sit by Lillianna, but she ignores him and refuses to budge when he wants to dance. Something's going on here, and Olmi will reveal it in a flashback.
Giovanni is a welder and he's called to the makeshift office where he is offered a job as a "specialized worker." The pay's better, it's a good opportunity, but it has a down-side: the job's in Sicily and he will have to relocate for 18 months. He talks to Lillianna about it and she doesn't like the idea. 18 months? What will become of them? But, as Giovanni explains "If I don't take it, there are ten other workers who will." He decides to take the job, for the career advancement and the better pay, which may bring a life for the two closer to reality. But, for Lillianna, there is no surety that there will be a future. 18 months is a long time.

And, as we will learn later, Giovanni hasn't always been faithful.
Giovanni flies to Sicily where he's met by corporate men who take him to a hotel—his temporary lodging the company is paying for until he can find his own accommodations. He's given a tour of the plant under construction, but there's a sense that he's just a cog in a machine, pushed from one middle-management type to another, but he's a good worker and he finds his place and begins the day-to-day duties of the work. But, it's a lonely existence, the hotel functional but sterile—it's temporary, anyway.
Soon, he gets a little adventurous and starts to explore the region of Sicily he's now inhabiting, while looking for a new room. He finds a half-room walk-up for cheap, but it's right next to that floor's bathroom, which doesn't exactly allow privacy, but it has a little balcony, and, after awhile, it feels more like his. He starts to make acquaintances with his workers and they invite him to a festival to meet people, but, really, he's not that interested.
More and more, his thoughts are of Milan and Lillianna and wondering what she might be doing and remembering their past. He writes her a letter, unsure of what her response will be—they didn't part on the best of terms and he recalls their disagreements in the past. But, he misses her and she should at least know that, and, with his lonely existence, the communication might do them good. He starts to anticipate a return-letter, but, in the meantime, he remembers...and he hopes.
Doesn't sound that exciting a prospect for a movie, does it? In another director's hands, it might be a good "napper." But, Olmi has a gift and a unique perspective on things. Rather than act as a director with a "God's Eye View," he embraces a peasant's point of view combined with a documentarian's eye for the interesting image with which to forward the story, relying less on dialogue, which is casual at best. Nobody comes out and says "I'm feeling lonely"; an image will convey that much more pointedly and poignantly.
This being Olmi's third film (his previous being Il Posto), there is a bit more sophistication in the presentation. The matter-of-factness is still there, but the director starts the movie in mid-crisis and tells the backstory of how we got there through flashbacks and shifting perspectives. Letters are not shown, but read aloud by the writer's voice, sometimes the imagining of the recipient hearing the voice and seeing the face. That puts us less in a realistic setting—despite Olmi's documentary eye—and more in the mind and the imagination of the two lovers, which builds a strong bond between them and the audience just as it is meant to unite the the fiances. All of a sudden we are in the same space as the characters. Simple. Effective.
When you look at the credits for I Fidanzati, you notice that there are only two actors credited—Canzi and Cabrini. The rest of the people in the film are just people, locals who participated in the film, adding color and authenticity to a film, that, though fiction, is told with the eye toward truth and not artifice. Olmi made his films with a democratic documentarian's strategy, bringing us that much closer to truth.

He had a unique way of looking at you.
Ermanno Olmi (July 24, 1931-May 5, 2018)

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